Skip to content

Could cruise ships eventually run off nuclear power? This company is working on it

April 28, 2022
7 min read
Ulstein Thor
Could cruise ships eventually run off nuclear power? This company is working on it
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Nuclear-powered ships could be coming to the world of cruising — but with a twist.

Norwegian shipbuilder Ulstein this week unveiled a new concept for a cruise vessel that would run on electricity generated at sea using a nuclear reactor.

The twist is that the reactor wouldn't be located on the cruise ship itself, but on a separate service vessel. The service vessel would recharge electric batteries on the cruise ship every few days.

For more cruise news, guides and tips, sign up for TPG’s cruise newsletter.

If the idea moves forward (something that will require both regulators as well as cruise lines to get on board), it will result in the arrival of what has long been something of a Holy Grail for the cruise industry – cruise vessels that are entirely emission-free.

Cruise ships have traditionally been powered with bunker oil, also known as heavy fuel oil, or another grade of oil called marine gasoil. Additionally, some ships in recent years have been designed to run on Liquefied Natural Gas, which is touted as a cleaner fuel than traditional marine-grade oils. However, using all such fuels results in emissions.

"Where you are going very long distances [with a cruise ship], you will never be able to be zero emissions with the fuel we have today," Ulstein senior naval architect Torill Muren told TPG on Tuesday at Seatrade Cruise Global, the cruise industry's annual meetup in Miami. "We want to start a discussion [about using nuclear power]."

An artist's rendering of the Ulstein Thor service vessel (left) that would use a thorium-based nuclear reactor to generate power to charge an all-electric expedition cruise vessel (right). (Image courtesy of Ulstein)

Muren spoke one-on-one with TPG moments after Ulstein revealed the concept at the company's booth at Seatrade Cruise Global, which is taking place this week at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

The company unveiled an outline of its concept for both an all-electric cruise vessel and the nuclear power-generating service vessel that would keep the all-electric cruise vessel charged. It also showed off artist's renderings of what the two vessels would look like.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

As depicted in the renderings, the cruise ship the line is proposing would be a small, hardy vessel of the sort that is used for expedition cruising — a type of cruising that involves traveling to hard-to-reach and often environmentally sensitive places such as Antarctica and the Arctic. It's a type of vessel that is a specialty for Ulstein.

The company recently built two new expedition ships for Lindblad Expeditions that are considered among the most advanced expedition ships currently at sea.

Related: Is this the ultimate Antarctica cruise ship? Our take on Lindblad's new vessel

Muren said Ulstein's idea is that one service vessel with a small nuclear reactor could serve as a floating power station for up to four small, all-electric expedition ships sailing in a region such as Antarctica.

As Ulstein conceives it, the service ship would feature a rarely built type of nuclear reactor that uses a thorium molten salt mixture. Such reactors are considered safer than conventional nuclear reactors because they operate with fuel in a molten state. In the event of an emergency, the fuel would drain into a containment vessel and solidify, preventing the sort of uncontrolled nuclear meltdown that can happen with a more traditional uranium-fueled reactor.

A small charging vessel dispatched by Ulstein Thor would charge the company's proposed all-battery expedition cruise vessels. (Image courtesy of Ulstein)

Norway-based Ulstein is calling its concept for the service ship Ulstein Thor — a nod to the thorium fuel that will be used in the vessel's electricity-producing reactor that also evokes the power of the Norse god of the same name.

Muren told TPG the concept could become a reality within 10 years if the industry and politicians signed on to the idea.

She said rapid advancements in battery storage happening now could mean that electric batteries with a high-enough capacity to run a small cruise ship for many days will be available in "five or six years." Add in electricity generated by a thorium-fueled reactor, and there could be a revolution in how ships are powered, she suggested.

"A very small amount of thorium can power a ship for 25 years," Muren said.

The all-electric cruise vessel that Ulstein proposes would be about 328 feet long and carry up to 80 passengers and 80 crew. It would be built extra tough to operate in polar areas with ice (it would have a 1C ice class rating).

The power-generating service ship would also be built as a rescue ship that could aid vessels in distress in remote areas such as Antarctica, the company said.

"Thor enables replenishment of energy and supplies on site, while also boasting the technology to facilitate rescue operations, as well as conducting research tasks," the line said in a press release issued at the time of the announcement. "It is, in effect, a crucial piece of infrastructure to support sustainable and safer operations. Thor literally has the power to change our entire industry.”

The service ship would have helicopter pads, firefighting equipment, rescue booms, workboats, autonomous surface vehicles and airborne drones, cranes, laboratories and a lecture lounge, the company said.

Muren noted that thorium has relatively low radioactivity and produces radioactive waste that is easier to manage than the radioactive waste from more traditional uranium reactors.

"Thorium is a much nicer substance, and it produces very little waste compared to uranium [used in other reactors]," she said. "With uranium, you have a lot of waste that you have to take care of for ... thousands of years. For thorium, it is a couple of hundred years."

Nuclear power plants have been used on military ships but almost never on passenger ships. A single nuclear-powered cargo vessel that also carried a small number of passengers, the NS Savannah, debuted in 1959 and operated for several years. It was built as a demonstration project with funding from the U.S. government.

Muren acknowledged that it could take some time to get cruise operators and political authorities comfortable with the idea of using nuclear power for cruise ship-related operations. However, she expects the cruise world will eventually embrace the idea of battery-run vessels charged with nuclear-generated energy.

"I think you will at some point see that we will go to batteries [for cruise ships], as we did with cars," she said. She added that it's important for the industry and authorities to begin talking about it now, even as the technology that could make it happen is still being developed.

"It's so important to start now, because the more we wait, the longer it will [take] before we are there," Muren said.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured image by An artist's drawing of Norwegian shipbuilder Ulstein's nuclear power-generation vessel Thor. (Image courtesy of Ulstein)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Top offers from our partners

How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
See all best card offers

TPG featured card

Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review
Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site

Rewards

3 - 4X points
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.

Intro offer

60,000 bonus points
Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

Annual Fee

$250

Recommended Credit

670-850
Excellent/Good
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees